The M4 motorway runs just north of Cardiff, with good onward links down to the Vale. The drive from London will take approximately three hours (a little over two from Birmingham); once there, a car is an added bonus.
Cardiff International Airport (www.cwlfly.com) is actually closer to Barry and Penarth than its namesake, with good connections across Europe and the UK. Check routes with BMI Baby (www.bmibaby.com), Eastern Airways (www.easternairways.com), Flybe (www.flybe.com) or Aer Arann (www.aerarann.ie).
High-speed Intercity trains link most UK cities with Cardiff, with onward regional services provided by Arriva (www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk). Barry is around three hours from London Paddington (www.nationalrail.co.uk).
Country code for the UK: +44. Cowbridge: (0)1446; Penarth/Cardiff area: (0)29.
Kingsley Amis' Booker prize-winning The Old Devils raises a glass to growing old in South Wales. For a poison-pen mystery that escalates into a murder trail around the Vale, read Glyn Daniel's 1954 detective story, Welcome Death. John Williams' contemporary novel Cardiff Dead reveals the Welsh capital's underbelly in a romp that connects politics, rugby fans and Dame Shirley Bassey.
Do go / Don't Go
You can't hail a cab in this neck of the woods, so book local journeys with a minicab firm. For travel in the east, try Cowbridge and Vale Cars (+44 (0)1446 774714); in the west, ring Penarth Cars (+44 (0)29 2070 1122).
10-15 per cent is standard, but many restaurants now add a discretionary 12.5 per cent, so be careful not to tip twice.
Bring all the boys' toys you can fit in the boot: your fishing rod and kite will definitely get an airing. Give your mountain bike a workout on the Heritage Coast Footpath, a 14-mile seafront trail from Aberthaw to Porthcawl that passes the largest sand dunes in Europe.
The Washington Gallery, in a former cinema in Penarth, displays modern art by local artists; many pieces are for sale (www.washingtongallery.co.uk). St Donat's Art Centre near Llantwit Major hosts performances, festivals and film seasons (www.stdonats.com). Ffotogallery at Penarth's Turner House has snap-happy events and workshops (www.ffotogallery.org). Dyffryn Gardens, a grade I-listed Edwardian escape in St Nicholas, holds concerts and plays throughout summer (www.dyffryngardens.org.uk). For classical concerts, opera or ballet, you can't beat Cardiff's Millennium Centre (www.wmc.org.uk).
For a unique perspective on the capital's striking waterfront, take one of the hourly Cardiff Waterbuses from Penarth marina across the bay to the Millennium Stadium. You can't miss them: they're bright yellow (+44 (0)7940 142409; www.cardiffcats.com).
To take home local cheeses, ciders, lamb and beef, check out the roving Vale Farmers' Markets, with monthly appearances in Penarth, Cowbridge, St Fagans and Barry (+44 (0)1656 661100). Cowbridge is lined with browsable boutiques and antiques shops; Barry has a bargain-hunters' dream of a street market on Tuesdays. In Penarth, have a snoop around the bold homewares at Hamptons on Ludlow Lane (+44 (0)29 2070 5391).
Mosey along the clifftops above Penarth towards Lavernock Point for uninterrupted views across the Severn Estuary to the island of Flat Holm and the Somerset coast.
Cardiff Bay plays host to a range of lunchtime and evening performances, from recitals to readings - see what you stumble across, or check the online listings at www.wmc.org.uk. Kids will love the nocturnal bat-spotting walk around Porthkerry Country Park in Barry (www.valeofglamorgan.gov.uk); they will even be kitted out with torches and super-exciting bat-detecting gizmos. Pre-book places on +44 (0)1446 733589, and listen out for things that go 'bleep' in the night.
June Cardiff Singer of the World - opera's most prestigious voice-off - is held every two years (www.bbc.co.uk). Midsummer Festival of Music & Theatre for Shakespeare and showtunes is performed in the botanical gardens at Dyffryn (www.midsummerfestival.co.uk). Cowbridge Jazz Festival: four days of Dixieland, Gypsy Trad and Big Bands (www.cowbridgejazz.co.uk). July Welsh Proms Cardiff at St David's Hall (www.welshproms.co.uk). August Rosettes all round for everything from prize bulls to home-made jam at the Vale of Glamorgan Agricultural Show (www.valeofglamorganshow.co.uk). September The Barry Waterfront Tall Ships Festival sets sail with street entertainers, live music and steam trains (+44 (0)1446 704736). Impersonators bring the King back to life at the Porthcawl Elvis Festival (www.elvies.co.uk). October Guzzle and gulp your way around the Cowbridge Food and Drink Festival (www.cowbridgefoodanddrink.org).